Sean Cotter is the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his translation of Matieu Caragiale’s Rakes of the Old Court. Read his essay on translating Caragiale’s work here

from Rakes of the Old Court

Notwithstanding the oath I had sworn the previous evening, to return early, I arrived at home even later than usual: the following day, toward noon. 

Evening found me horizontal, having lost all sense of time. Asleep I would have stayed, fast, were it not for a letter that arrived with a racket, begging a signature. When my sleep is disturbed, I am malevolent, torpid, a niggard of good-will. I refused to sign. I moaned that I should be left alone.

I dozed again, for a moment. The poor epistle again materialized, now accompanied by raw lamplight. The villainous postman had deemed it meet to sign with his own hand. I showed no gratitude.

I loathe letters. As long as I have lived, I cannot say I have received more than one—from my good friend Uhry—that brought any happy news. I fear of letters. In those days, I would burn them without opening.

This fate awaited the newly arrived. Recognizing the hand, I could guess the message. I knew it by heart—that saltless home-cooked fish-bake of counsel and judgment served up the first of each month, the counsel to set myself on some career like a man, the judgment that I will never deign to set myself anywhere. And in closing, always the hope that God will keep His watch over me.

Amen! In the mood I found myself, it would have been beyond my powers to set on any path at all. I could not even move in the bed. My joints dismantled, my lower back in agony, I felt like a stewed pig. Into my fogged mind came the fear I was suffering some palsy.

I was not, yet in the end I was overcome. For a month, without a word or murmur, with hope and reason, I had been going out—for some drinks, some rakery, some play. In the years previous, I had been sorely tried by my circumstances, my tiny raft battered by great waves. I defended myself ineptly, and disgusted, by everything, beyond measure, I strove to find, within a life of debauchery, oblivion. 

I took things a little quickly, however, and soon saw myself forced to lay down arms. I was drained completely. That evening, I felt finished, such that I could not imagine moving were the house to combust. But I found myself suddenly in the middle of the room, on my feet, looking anxiously at the clock. I had remembered I was invited to eat with Pantazi.

What luck I had awoken, what great luck! I was grateful now for my parents’ letter: without it, I would have missed a meeting with my dearest friend.

I dressed and went out. A night toward winter, an air of tears. Even though there had been no rain, everything was wet. The gutters wept, the branches stripped of leaves dripped fat drops, running down trunks and window grills like a cold sweat. This was the season that drove one above all to the bottle; the few passers-by who drizzled through the fog were almost all drunk. One longjohn, descending the steps of a bar, fell to the ground in a heap and did not move again.

I turned my head, revolted. Since the establishment selected for this evening lay as far away as Covaci, I took a hansom. It proved the right choice, since, on my arrival, my party was already on its second round of tzuica, the other patrons their third. I was surprised everyone had gathered so early; Pantazi explained he had come straight from home, while Pashadia and Pirgu from their club, the weather being too foul to dawdle over aperitifs.

Pantazi pronounced another round of tzuica. But the good will we wished each other, glasses clinking, was utterly lacking in ourselves. I feared I would fall asleep again. In the hall where a grotesque banquet of merchants and traders began to warm up—the night was a Saturday—our table felt more like a wake.

The borscht, garnished with cream and a hot pepper, was sipped in silence. None of those sharing table raised their eyes from their bowls. Pirgu, especially, seemed to suffer a dark humor. I would have started conversation, if the musicians had not begun precisely that waltz Pantazi had a weakness for, a slow, dragging waltz, voluptuous and sad, almost funereal. In its mollitious oscillation, it traced a nostalgic and endlessly somber passion, one so rending that the very pleasure of listening to it became a kind of suffering. When the taut violin strings began to mimic a careworn confession, the entire hall fell mute. Ever darker, lower, and slower, describing dolor and deception, wandering and pain, rue and regret, the song, suffocated in nostalgia, drifted away, withered into a whisper, to a lost, tardy, and pointless cry.

Pantazi wiped his eyes.

“Ah,” said Pirgu to Pashadia, making his eyes melancholy and voice sweet, “ah, this will be the waltz we play while I take you to your final resting place—and as soon as possible. I doubt you will make me wait much longer for the greatest celebration of my few years. So beautiful it will be, so beautiful! Me, drunk, and Mr. Pantazi mopping the rush of his sad, warm tears; me bidding farewell, in a moving speech, to my eternally unforgotten friend.”

Pashadia said nothing.

“Yes,” Pirgu continued, slurring his voice and gaze even more, “so beautiful! I will place cordons and medals beside you. And after seven years, when they dig you up again for your memorial, I’ll wager they find you still elegant, crisp and well groomed, without a single grey hair, pickled in quicksilver and mineral spirits like a pepper in salt and vinegar.”

But Pashadia was not listening; his mind was elsewhere. Pirgu escaped this time, and I felt unlucky, since I did not have eyes to see him.

Alone in Bucharest from a young age, living on my own, I kept distant from the herds. The restricted circle of my acquaintances, those chosen few, would never have included Gorică Pirgu, if he were not the inseparable fellow of Pashadia, for whom I had a boundless devotion.

Pashadia was a brilliant devil. A series of events had endowed him with one of the most complete formations possible to the human mind. I have been close to many of those considered our nation’s most illustrious. Very few have I seen who composed as splendidly so many great gifts as this unjustly treated person, who, by his own will or his life’s, had decided for oblivion. And I knew not another to have suffered the blind enmity of so many.

I heard this might be due, in part, to his appearance. But what a handsome head he had! And yet, some renitence was there, something dormant and disturbing; so much bridled passion, such fiery arrogance and brutal animosity were contained in the contours of his torpid face, in the satiated pleats of his lips, the power of his nostrils, in those disquieting eyes beneath heavy lids. And what little he said, in a dull, labored voice, he spoke with bitterness, with deep revulsion.

His life, according to the story he seldom revisited, was a terrible struggle from the start. Descended from people of prestige and station, he was abandoned at birth, raised by alien hands, and then exsputed to another country for his education. On his return, he saw himself dispossessed by his family, robbed, harassed, persecuted, and by everyone betrayed. What was not turned against him? With what strident injustice were forces gathered, what unremitting toil to steal his youth, what exertion to bury him in silence! From trials of every type, through which he struggled for many sorrowful years, any one of which would have toppled a giant, this iron being was doubly tempered. Pashadia was not a man for resentment; his self-confidence and cold blood never left him, even in his blackest moments. Steadfastly pursuing his goal, he faced down the hostility of his surroundings, he masterfully turned it to his own use. Like none other, he knew to wait and be patient; obstinate he stalked opportunity; he clenched and clutched that which, under a normal course of events, should have fallen to him from the beginning, without trials and harrowing. Once arrived, he transcended all, surveyed his wondering foes, and, iron-fisted gelder with velvet gloves, he satisfied his desires. The pathways of the great opened to him, wide and smooth; yet now that he could dream of having everything, he no longer wanted anything, and he withdrew. I supposed the root of this strange decision was to some extent a fear of himself, since beneath the icy outer veil, Pashadia hid a passionate soul, complex, tenebrous, and which, despite his control, would betray itself in slips of cynicism. With the venom built up in his petrous heart, power could easily have made him dangerous. And any belief in virtue, honesty, or good, any pity or indulgence for human weakness would have been completely foreign to him.

His withdrawal from politics was less of a surprise than the transformation that followed in his way of life. At the age when others began a process of atonement, he, who had always served as a living example of comportment, threw himself into excesses of decadence. Was this the revelation of a life he had led, up to that moment, in darkness, or the rediscovery of an old practice whose craving made him disburden a long line of exemplary years? – because it was unnatural to shed such a skin overnight. How it happened, I do not know, but regardless, I seldom happened upon a player that handsome, rake that superb, or drinker that grand. Could one say he had lowered himself? Not at all. With sober elegance, full of dignity in carriage and speech, he remained a European man of the world to the tips of his fingernails. To preside over a great congress or an academy, none more fitting would be found. One who did not know him, seeing him pass in the evening, robust and grave, followed by a hansom, could never be made to imagine what base and nasty places that commanding gentleman would enter to drown himself until daybreak. For me, the tableau of his life contained something terrifying; I sensed that a dark spiritual drama unrolled within, whose mystery remained unpenetrated.

If, in trying to provide some sense of the features of this noble face, I have paused so long, it is because I did not want to miss the privilege of bringing him to life again before my eyes, his memory being dear to me. Through Pashadia, I met another, wholly distinct than the peregrinator of dens of Bucharestean iniquity. But this person I met accidentally. A few steps from the Mogoşoaia Bridge, along a lonely alley, in the shadow of an ancient, flowerless garden, an old house rises, dark and inhospitable. I was one of the few privileged to cross the threshold of that wealthy residence where reached, into every corner, the austere soul of its master.

I found him in his study, an abode of quiet and recollection, where nothing of the outside world reached. In that chamber, lined with moldy tapestries, surrounded by wardrobes nailed to the walls and curtained windows, how many unforgotten hours was I held, fixed in the high-backed chair, by the conversation of my host. Weighty and far-reaching, restrained and masterful, lacking elaborations, divagations, and pointless asides, it gathered one within powerful webs, it astonished, it charmed. Pashadia was additionally a master of the quill, and in his youth had painted well. The quantity of his reading was unbelievable. History he knew like no-one else, its study had developed his inborn gift of judging people without err; for many at that time at their height, he foresaw their immanent sad downfall, and I cannot forget how his eyes, as he spoke the fatidic words, flashed sinisterly. Pashadia Măgureanu! I took the sympathy the man had for me like a gift of Providence, and I am proud to be the disciple of this great revolutionary, the stoic. For all the deficiencies the world found in him, I do not allow but one alone—and that one unforgiveable: his amity with Gorică.

Gore Pirgu was an evil man without pair or peer. His uncouth humor, like a cheeky court-jester, earned him the reputation of being a clever boy, to which was added—why, no-one knows—also that of being a good boy, although his good was nothing other than bad. This white clown had the soul of a dogcatcher and gravedigger. Spoiled to the marrow from a young age, cardsharp, crimper, maid-ruiner, running with the pimps and swindlers, he had been the Benjamin of the Cazes Café and the cherubim of whore-houses. It disgusted me to research in more detail the complications of this rotten, sad creature, one pulled by an unhealthy attraction for all that was dirty and putrid. In Pirgu’s blood ran the desire for the bohemian life of our past ages, for love on the other side of town, parties at the monasteries, songs without decency, for anything one could call disgusting or shameless. He only knew to talk about the card-playing he plied as a trade and the worldly ills that quickly exhausted him, the complete foundation of the spirit with which he enchanted those who prized his idiocy. And yet, none other did Pashadia find to make his comrade, even though he, in contrast, scorned the superficial, belittling and ridiculing it mercilessly whenever he had the chance.

“Turn and look, if you please,” he said to me, “don’t let your neighbor kill himself; look at him, he’s going to swallow his knife.”

It was true; full of effort, Gorica was working his knife over a poorly cooked thigh, passing a piece through mayonnaise, and, still with the knife, jabbing it backwards into his mouth. I pretended not to see, or hear. Pantazi bent to look for something under the table. 

“The precepts,” continued Pashadia, “of elementary good breeding state: neither the knife in fish and vegetables nor the fork in cheese, and, in no case, the knife in the mouth. But this, this is for finer people, the prodigy of boyars, not for rubes, not the masses. Who can make a swine drink from crystal?”

For Pirgu, who thought himself unequaled in his knowledge of high society, no rebuke could have cut him more to the quick. He recovered quickly, however, and arrogantly told Pashadia he soon would perish.

“It’s a good idea for you to weaken me with your manners and airs,” he said haughtily, “because otherwise I’d bare my teeth. You’ve gotten old and mad ….”

To end this, Pantazi ordered that the champagne be uncorked, which, following the custom of our meetings, was served in large glasses. Pirgu would only let one finger’s much be poured, on top of which he added almost a liter of soda water, some light Hungarian borviz. Of the four, he was the only one disinclined to drink; one could say he more pretended to drink, filling himself with schpritzes of soda, blue soda. Still, he was seldom not drunk by morning, and when he was tipsy he would suffer such spells, after which, just a little indiscretion and he would be too embarrassed to look anyone in the eye.

Our low voices dedicating the cup to the health of Pantazi, our dear host, we tasted the invigorating drink with delight. Pirgu only wet his lips and looked down his nose.

“Champagne without dames,” he ordained, “isn’t worth a dime.”